Merkava Lite?

Will today's lumbering battle-ax be transformed into an agile wheeled vehicle capable of fighting today's asymetrical wars?

The tank of the future: that was the subject of the conversation two months ago between the chief of Army Headquarters, Major General Yiftah Ron Tal, and Jim Albaugh, vice president for Army Systems in Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems (IDS) unit. IDS, which Albaugh heads, accounts for about half the company's activity. The two talked about the project that the Pentagon has given IDS: developing the weapons that will be used by the ground forces of the future. As part of the project, which is worth billions of dollars, the world's largest manufacturer of passenger planes will also be responsible for developing the next-generation tank.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Army Headquarters has made a strategic decision to operate within the overall U.S. process of shaping the ground forces of the future. In the meeting, Major General Ron Tal offered, in the IDF's name, the assets Israel has accumulated in knowledge and technology in the manufacture of tanks and in operational experience, in return for cooperation with Boeing in developing the future American tank.

What, then, will be the character of the new tank? It will be lightweight (about a third the weight of Israel's Merkava tank), have wheels rather than treads and will be air transportable. It will replace the Abrams M1-A2 main battle tank. At the conclusion of its development and the start of its manufacture, in about 10 years, Major General Ron Tal would like to see it replace the Merkava tank in the IDF.

The Pentagon has already decided to stop manufacturing the Abrams tank. However, the Israeli defense establishment maintains that what is right for the United States is not necessarily appropriate for Israel. The United States has a vast stock of thousands of advanced Abrams tanks, which were brought back from Europe at the end of the Cold War. The IDF, in contrast, still has a shortage of quality tanks. Because of the future plans, the process of developing the fifth-generation model of the Merkava has not yet been launched, but the IDF, contrary to the position of the Finance Ministry, has decided to manufacture several hundred more Merkava Mark IV tanks. The idea behind the decision is to ensure the existence of a critical mass of these tanks, and also to preserve the ratio that has been set of one Israeli quality tank for every four or five battle tanks in the Syrian Army.

According to foreign reports, budgetary constraints have limited the manufacture of the Merkava tank to about 50 a year. The hundreds of additional tanks that the defense establishment wants to manufacture by the end of the decade will make it possible to create one reserve tank division and one regular brigade. Army Headquarters has determined that a regular brigade of Merkava Mark IV tanks is the necessary minimum for training tank crews, achieving professional standards and for military exercises. A brigade is made up of about 100 tanks, a division of slightly more than 300.

The dispute over the treasury's demand to shut down the Merkava project owing to budget shortfalls is being waged concurrent with the discussions now being held by the General Staff about a new conception of warfare. This process is part of the lessons that have been learned from the war fought by the United States in Iraq, where the principle of "jointness" between land and air forces was implemented. In the Iraq war, the United States used approximately three tank divisions with some 400 tanks, which destroyed or annihilated 23 Iraqi armored divisions. The Americans' overwhelming advantage lay in their absolute mastery of the skies.

"The IDF is in a similar situation," says the head of the IDF institute for the study of battle doctrine, Brigadier General Shimon Naveh. "In a classic war, such as the United States conducted in Iraq, Israel also enjoys total air superiority over Syria," Dr. Naveh says.

Swarm of ants

During the summer, Naveh met in Washington with Andrew Marshall, director of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, an in-house think tank, and the progenitor of the conceptual Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which examines the utilization of armed forces on the modern field of battle. Marshall, who is more than 80 years old, frequently meets with IDF commanding officers in order to learn from the Israeli experience.

Marshall also developed the notion of the "swarm attack." In the future, he says, the army will operate like a swarm of ants, seizing the adversary entity from all directions and taking it apart. Naveh disagreed with Marshall's argument that the tank would have no part in that type of campaign. In their latest meeting, Marshall admitted his mistake. It's true that the U.S. Air Force was responsible for destroying most of the Iraqi tanks, but in the end it was the tanks that entered Baghdad and conquered the city, thus deciding the war.

Discussions held by the IDF since the war in Iraq have emphasized the similarity between the patterns of warfare of the U.S. armed forces and the IDF. Except for one basic difference: whereas the United States is the global cop, the dispute between Israel and its neighbors is over real estate. Hence also the basic difference in the mix of force-building, and in the role played by each of the army's branches. "The supreme mission of the IDF will be to preserve Israel's territorial integrity," Ron Tal said in a talk he gave not long ago. "Therefore, in the next war, too, we will be committed to a military decision that will be fundamentally based on the conquest of territory. Thus a basic component of the decision will remain land maneuvering, and as a result the land army will continue to occupy a central place."

The IDF is following in the footsteps of the United States and addressing the new conditions of troop disposition in the second and third decades of the 21st century. One of the subjects being considered in these discussions is the new character of wars. In the past, armored forces fought battles of attrition in open spaces. Today, partly because of urbanization and demography, wars are asymmetrical. There are no longer wars involving one army against another, but a mixture of military and civilian forces in urban areas confronting popular uprisings, terrorist organizations and guerrilla forces. These developments have implications for the ability of the regular army to wage war. Urbanization, which places the advantage in the hands of terrorists and guerrillas, is another aspect of the asymmetrical wars that will be conducted in the future.

"In these asymmetrical wars," Dr. Naveh says, "the importance of the tank increases, as was shown in the events in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield [in April 2002]. The tank is both a platform that protects the soldiers and a means to break up organized fighting by subversive elements in urban spaces."

20,000 tanks

Following the conclusion of Operation Defensive Shield, a group of American officers visited Israel in order to study the IDF's methods of combat in Jenin, with the aim of implementing them in possible battles in Iraq. "In the end," Naveh says, "Iraq fell when the tanks of the United States broke the resistance in Baghdad and conquered the city."

Surprisingly, the prestige of the attack helicopter decreased and the importance of the tank increased in the Iraq war. True, the mobility of the helicopter is greater than that of the tank, but Iraq showed its two major limitations. It lacks protection and it has limited firepower. Its vulnerability forced the pilots to back away from targets that had been marked. In the Iraq campaign it was found that the missiles fired by the attack helicopters of the U.S. ground forces were less effective than the shells fired by tanks.

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, 6,200 tanks of the Israeli, Egyptian and Syrian armies took part in armored battles. Some 2,500 tanks took part in the Six-Day War of 1967. At the end of the 1980s, Major General Israel Tal forecast that 20,000 tanks will be involved in the next Middle East war.

The situation has been reversed. According to the conception that was formulated at Army Headquarters, and is accepted by the General Staff, Dr. Naveh says, "We have to stop thinking about the tank as an instrument that wins the war alone. It is an element in a team that creates the system of maneuver, which also contains other elements, such as air superiority, intelligence superiority and the ability to deliver precision strikes. However, the tank will continue to be the core around which are built the tactical and dynamic elements in the defense of the area and the conquest of territories."

For these missions the IDF needs not the thousands of old tanks but the high-quality Merkavas. This approach has made it possible to reduce the tank order of battle and cut back on the armored forces.

Israel's largest industrial project

The IDF now has more than 1,300 Merkava tanks, according to the annual reports on the balance of forces in the Middle East, issued by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. A perusal of the reports over the past decade shows that the number of Merkava tanks increased by between 40 and 60 a year. In the past two years, the center has not updated the estimated number of Merkava tanks; the report of 2000-2001 reported on 1,280 Merkavas.

Following the decision to cut back forces, Army Headquarters removed from the order of battle some of its old Centurion and Patton tanks. According to the Jaffee Center report, the IDF has more than 2,000 tanks of these types. Removing some of them will reduce the order of battle of tanks to below the level the IDF had in the Yom Kippur War.

The Merkava tank is today the backbone of the tanks in the ground forces, but the problem lies in the mix. Many of the Merkava tanks are from the first and second generation, dating back to the end of the 1970s. They are equipped with an outmoded cannon and a small engine (900 HP, compared with an engine of 1,200 HP in the Merkava Mark III and 1,500 HP in the Merkava Mark IV).

According to MENTAK, the Merkava project directorate, the decision to manufacture an Israeli tank was correct both operationally and economically. The price of the Abrams tank that is the equivalent of the Merkava Mark IV is about $7.8 million. However, according to data in the possession of the Defense Ministry, the Americans asked for $10 million a tank from the Turks, who expressed an interest in purchasing the Abrams.

It costs about $3.5 million to manufacture a Merkava tank, according to MENTAK. Development costs, including the building of infrastructure, will add another $1.5 million to the price. Thus the cost of manufacturing an Israeli tank is approximately $5 million. If 1,300 Merkava tanks have been manufactured to date, the cost to Israel has been about $6.5 billion. If that figure is divided by 33 years of development and production, the average annual cost comes to about $200 million. The current outlay is more or less the same: about NIS 800 million from the direct budget of the Defense Ministry and another $50 million from U.S. defense aid.(A.B.)

Large-scale damage The closure of the Merkava project will expose the defense establishment to lawsuits by factories in Israel and abroad, with whom production contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars were signed, according to an estimate prepared by MENTAK, the Merkava project directorate, headed by Brigadier General Amir Nir.

Maintenance and Rehabilitation Depot 7100, where the turret and the body of the tanks are made, is now engaged in cutting the steel plates for the tanks that will come off the production line in another three years. In the contract it signed with General Dynamics, the Defense Ministry undertook to purchase engines that are manufactured on the basis of technology developed by the German firm MTU. Some of the engines are now being assembled and some are being tested or are in various stages of manufacture by subcontractors. Others are still in warehouses, in the form of raw material, and will be assembled in another few months.

For example, the bottom section of the engine, which is made of cast iron, is being built by Denison Industries, a U.S. firm. On the basis of the contract and its commitment to meet the schedule, the company purchased the materials it needs for a long-term period. In IDF jargon, this is known as "stocks in process" and MENTAK estimates its worth at billions of shekels.

This will not be the only form of loss if the Merkava project is scrapped. Since the start of the manufacture of the Merkava Mark IV, at the beginning of this year, one of the IDF's armored brigades has received several dozen tanks. If the project is stopped, it's not clear whether there will be any point in using the new tanks, because of the high costs that will be involved in setting up a separate unit for the maintenance of the Merkava's unique systems. Army Headquarters deployed to receive the new tanks by establishing an instruction unit; in the course of several years, instructors were trained and courses were held. The cost of this aspect of the project is estimated to run into hundreds of millions of shekels.

It is the military industries that will bear the brunt of the losses. In internal discussions, Major General Yiftah Ron Tal, chief of Army Headquarters, cautioned that cancellation of the Merkava project would affect the continuation of the program to upgrade the Patton tanks of the Turkish Army's Armored Corps, which Israel Military Industries is carrying out as chief contractor, along with Elbit Systems. That deal, in which the Israeli company is upgrading 170 Patton tanks on the basis of the technology that was developed for the Merkava, is problematic: It is worth $680 million, but its profitability is doubtful. The view is that only by realizing the option to increase the number of Turkish tanks to be upgraded will a profit be ensured. That option, says Major General Ron Tal, will not be realized if the Merkava project is canceled.